Laughter as Medicine: A Mirror Designed to Help Cancer Patients

February 19, 2016

Salih Berk Ilhan (MFA 2015 Product Design) focuses on making products that provide relief from unpleasant experiences. His latest creation, Smile Mirror, which is part of his Uplift project aimed at improving the quality of life of cancer patients, has captivated a wide range of attention, from the dean of Thomas Jefferson University Medical School in Philadelphia, to CNN in Turkey. SVA Close Up reporter Blessy Augustine caught up with Ilhan to find out more.

Can you tell us about the Smile Mirror?
The smile mirror uses a combination of different technologies to show your reflection only when you smile. It functions by recognizing the movement of facial muscles and is based on the principle of creating reasons for people to physically smile and by doing so, feel emotionally happy. It is part of a larger project called Uplift, which focuses on opportunities to create joyful moments for cancer patients.

I read that the dean of Thomas Jefferson University Medical School expressed interest in the Smile Mirror. Can you elaborate on that?
As the chief design officer of 10xBETA, I had the privilege of being part of an amazing partnership with Thomas Jefferson University. I teach design classes there, and the particular program that we are conducting this semester is called JeffSolves, which is an initiative to bring together faculty members from across the Jefferson community to generate innovative solutions as first-hand witnesses of healthcare problems.

When we went to Philadelphia to conduct the first workshop of the semester, I presented my SVA thesis project Uplift as a way of introducing myself, and I received great feedback from the audience. Mark Tykocinski, the dean of Sidney Kimmel Medical College [which is part of Thomas Jefferson University] encouraged me to produce the Smile Mirror by saying that they have many patients who need it. Also, two scholars from Thomas Jefferson University requested the mirrors to conduct clinical research in how it could improve the quality of life for cancer patients.

Right now, I’m in the process of developing it for batch production. Marcel Botha, who is a serial entrepreneur, the CEO of 10xBETA and my business mentor, is being a great support with planning the launch process. Our goal is to launch Smile Mirror for sale to hospitals and to the general public by the end of 2016.

Is there a reason why Uplift focuses on cancer patients?
I have been witnessing a close relative’s battle against cancer. Talking with her about her journey made me realize that it is a wicked problem. Beside the physiological burden, the disease also brings psychological challenges. Family and friends don’t usually know how to be helpful, and a significant number of cancer patients experience clinical depression. As a designer who believes that through design, bringing joyful moments can positively change most experiences, I design products that aim to improve the quality of life for cancer patients.

help735Another product concept that is part of the Uplift is an app called All Together. It makes asking for help easier, by allowing friends and family to see and assign themselves tasks that the patient needs help with. For instance, the caregiver—that one person who runs every errand—could post a task on the All Together calendar to announce that they need their children to be picked up from school during a chemotherapy session, and people in the circle could see that task and volunteer accordingly. By getting rid of the useless “please let me know if you need help” aspect, All Together aims to change the social contract of asking for help.

What made you focus on the idea of joy in product design?
Forty-five years ago, Victor Papanek—the iconic advocate of responsible design—said, “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them.” In the first years of my undergrad I learned about the side effects of the Industrial Revolution. Charlie Chaplin caricatured some of the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization perfectly in his movies. In The Great Dictator, the industrial designer who works for Adenoid Hynkel (a parody of Adolf Hitler) continuously invents war machines; and in Modern Times, there is an inventor who creates machines to maximize the efficiency by humiliating the workers. For example, he makes a machine that force-feeds the workers while they are working on the assembly line, so that the factory owner can eliminate the lunch break.

It is not different today. We’re witnessing a global scale tragedy caused by greed that not only affects the environment but also the wellbeing of people. According to research, the rise in cancer is directly related to the rise in industrialization in a society. As an optimistic designer I want to use design to cultivate joy in this context of disease. The revolutionary physician Dr. Patch Adams said that, “The most radical act anyone can commit is to be happy.” I am amazed by the power of optimism even in the darkest times. There is this iconic image that I can’t forget: a young protester, who was handcuffed by two policemen and was being dragged by them, was smiling at the camera. His big happy smile was a proof that you can’t easily take away someone’s happiness unless they give it away.

Ilhan is the winner of the 2013 Red Dot Award for the Design Concept Best of the Best and selected as a student finalist three times at the International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) of Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA). For more information about him and his work, click here.

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